March 20, 2017

Why Strategies Disappoint—and How to Fix Them

Source: Lawfare

Journalist: Raphael S. Cohen

It’s a new administration, which means it is time for a new round of national security documents. From the National Security Strategy on down, over the next months, the White House, the Defense Department, and other agencies across the U.S. government will generate dozens of these strategies. In abstract, everyone loves the idea of strategy, and “not having a strategy” is a constant Washington refrain. For the executive branch, these strategic documents allow policymakers to lay out their vision for the future of foreign and defense policy and ensure that each part of the sprawling executive branch knows its place in the grand design. For Capitol Hill, these documents can help to make sure resources are aligned with needs. For the press and pundit class, they provide months of fodder for debate and discussion. As one retired senior general officer summed up, “you can’t be against long range planning; it’s like who’s going to be against apple pie?” Indeed, it is hard to criticize the concept of strategic planning. That is, of course, until one actually reads what is ultimately produced.

In practice, strategies—at all levels—often disappoint. One retired senior Air Force general officer referred to recent Air Force service strategies as “full of fluff and gobbledygook.” Another senior Air Force general lamented that the primary value he got out of the service’s strategy was several months of talking points for his speechwriters. And this is not only an Air Force problem. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy recently lamented that the major defense strategy—the Quadrennial Defense Review—had devolved into “a glossy coffee table brochure.” Former National Security Council Director for Strategy and Requirements Kori Schake agreed, calling the most recent review a “budget document, not a strategy document.” And similar criticisms have been leveled against recent editions of the National Security Strategy. For example, former National Security Council staffers Richard Fontaine and Shawn Brimley warned not to expect too much from the Obama administration’s last National Security Strategy because “these strategy documents are mostly a lot of hot air.”

Read the full article at Lawfare.


  • Michèle Flournoy

    Chair, CNAS Board of Directors, Co-founder and Managing Partner, WestExec Advisors

    Michèle Flournoy is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of WestExec Advisors, and former Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), w...

  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Shawn Brimley

    Former Executive Vice President and Director of Studies

    Shawn Brimley was the Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he managed the center’s research agenda and staf...